A new study suggests that young people who go into puberty before their peers have a higher risk of depression.
Early maturation sets off a string of psychological, social-behavioral and interpersonal problems that predict heightened levels of depression in boys and girls several years later, according to research from the University of Illinois.
Over a four-year period, lead researcher Karen D. Rudolph and her colleagues measured puberty timing and tracked signs of depression in teenagers for more than 160 young people.
In their early teenage years, those in the study completed annual questionnaires and interviews which assessed their psychological risk factors, interpersonal stressors and coping behaviors. Parents also were asked to report on their children’s social relationships and difficulties.
“It is often believed that going through puberty earlier than peers only contributes to depression in girls,” Rudolph said. “We found that early maturation can also be a risk for boys as they progress through adolescence, but the timing is different than in girls.”
Depression in Teenage Girls
The study is one of the first to confirm that early puberty heightens risk for depression in both sexes over time and also to explain the underlying psychopathology.
Participants who entered puberty ahead of their peers were prone to a number of risks associated with depression. They had poorer self-images, greater anxiety, social problems, including conflict with family members and peers, and tended to befriend peers who were vulnerable to getting into trouble, researchers found.
“In girls, early maturation seems to trigger immediate psychological and environmental risks and consequent depression,” Rudolph said. “Pubertal changes cause early maturing girls to feel badly about themselves, cope less effectively with social problems, affiliate with deviant peers, enter riskier and more stressful social contexts and experience disruption and conflict within their relationships.”
Depression in Teenage Boys
Early maturation did not seem to have these abrupt adverse effects on boys. The boys showed significantly lower levels of depression at the outset than their female counterparts.
These differences lessened over time, however, so that by the end of the fourth year, early maturing boys didn’t differ significantly from their female counterparts in their levels of depression.
“While early maturation seemed to protect boys from the challenges of puberty initially, boys experienced an emerging cascade of personal and contextual risks – negative self-image, anxiety, social problems and interpersonal stress – that eventuated in depression as they moved through adolescence,” Rudolph said.
The study looked at the risk factors as independent measures, but it’s possible that these factors reinforce each other over time, the researchers said.
“But it’s important to note, as we find in our work, that only some teens are vulnerable to the effects of early maturation, particularly those with more disruption in their families and less support in their peer relationships,” Rudolph said.
Childhood adversity and youth depression: Influence of gender and pubertal status Karen D. Rudolph and Megan Flynn Development and Psychopathology / Volume 19 / Issue 02 / April 2007, pp 497-521 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0954579407070241